A year ago, Georgia was one of four states that had no hate crime legislation.
But the deadly rampage last week that left eight people dead, six of them women of Asian descent, is now providing a test of a law passed last year — and a window into the way that the state’s increasingly diverse electorate has altered its political and cultural chemistry.
Georgia, after earlier false starts, passed its legislation following the shooting death of a young Black man, Ahmaud Arbery, who was stopped, detained and then shot to death by white residents in a South Georgia suburban neighborhood.
Now last week’s shootings, in which Robert Aaron Long, 21, has been charged with eight counts of murder, are providing a major stress test for when the legislation can be applied, what it can achieve and how it plays into the state’s increasingly polarized politics.
Political leaders, civil rights activists, and national and local elected officials condemned last week’s attack as an act of bigoted terror, drawing a connection between the majority-Asian victims and a recent surge in hate crimes against Asian and Pacific Islander Americans.
Law enforcement officials and some legal figures have shied away from labeling the killings a hate crime, saying there is insufficient evidence of motivation. Prosecutors in two separate counties are still weighing whether to invoke the hate crimes law.
But that has not stopped the shootings from resonating as bias crimes for many in Georgia, a state that has been at the forefront of the demographic changes coursing through the South.
“I don’t want to draw any conclusions, but it’s obvious to me that if six victims were Asian women, that was a target,” said Georgia State Representative Calvin Smyre, a longtime Democratic lawmaker who helped shepherd the hate crimes bill through the General Assembly.
In recent years, Georgia has been a microcosm of the racial divides that have affected the entire country.
Last February, the killing of Mr. Arbery, 25, ignited a national outcry, particularly after law enforcement officials initially failed to make any arrests following his death near Brunswick, Ga.
In the aftermath of last week’s killings, the response from law enforcement was criticized once again, after a spokesman for the sheriff’s department in suburban Cherokee County, where one of the attacks took place, downplayed the role of anti-Asian racism in the shooting there. Instead, he attributed the suspect’s motivation to sex addiction — the gunman’s own characterization — and the fact that he had been having “a really bad day.”
Political leaders, especially in Atlanta, have gone much further, characterizing the events as domestic terrorism and, at least in part, motivated by a web of racial and misogynistic intolerance. President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Georgia on Friday, casting the shootings in the context of broader abuse and intolerance directed at people of Asian descent.
But absent clear evidence of the shooter’s intent, there is broad division on whether there are sufficient grounds for adding hate crime charges.
Representative Sam Park, a Democratic member of the Georgia House and the state’s only Korean-American legislator, said it is impossible to separate the crime from the anti-Asian bias and violence that has surged over the past year.
“Regardless of the motive of the perpetrator, we very much feel like this is an attack on our community. Condolences are good. Words of sympathy are great — but actions are necessary.”
But Byung J. Pak, a Republican, Korean-American and former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, urged caution before linking the killings to a hate crime before the investigation is completed.
“Prejudging the case before the completion of the investigation puts pressure on prosecutors to perhaps file charges which may not hold up in court, or raise expectations that cannot be satisfied,” Mr. Pak said. “I would be cautious designating this crime as a hate crime until the investigation is complete.”
Racist violence has a particular sting in the American South, considering the region’s long arc of racial discrimination. Though it is often framed in the familiar context of Black-white community relations, a dramatic increase in Asian and Latino populations has also shifted the state’s political and cultural composition.
The General Assembly approval of the state’s current hate crime legislation last year in the wake of Mr. Arbery’s death reflected an increasingly purple electorate, as well as pressure from the business community. Three white men have since been charged in connection with his death.
Efforts to pass the hate crime legislation were led by Representative Chuck Efstration, a former assistant district attorney and a Republican who represents an increasingly Democratic district in Gwinnett County. Mr. Efstration said he first pushed the bill in 2019, before Mr. Arbery was slain, when it was adopted by the House but failed to gain support in the Senate.
Opponents of the bill argued that it stifled free speech. The legislation was finally adopted despite efforts in the Senate to derail it.
“Georgia has changed,” said Sheikh Rahman, a Democratic member of the State Senate from Gwinnett County outside Atlanta, who is a Bangladeshi-American. He describes his district as “people from 100 different countries speaking 100 different languages.
“What my district looks like, the United States of America is going to look like 20 years from now.”
Georgia replaced its two Republican senators in combative runoffs this year, electing Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, and also narrowly supported Mr. Biden in 2020. That marked the first time since 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected, that the state voted Democratic in a presidential contest.
However, even as Democrats won two Senate seats and flipped Georgia for Mr. Biden, Republicans retained control of the state legislature and the governor’s office, leaving them in solid control of state government.
“The national story about Arbery became very well known,” Mr. Efstration said in a telephone interview. “And there was renewed interest and people raising questions — why was Georgia one of only four states that didn’t have a hate crimes law?”
He added: “We’ve had arguments that these laws are anti-speech or anti-thought and that all crimes involve hate. We were able to address those.”
Democratic lawmakers have pointed to the bill’s passage as a reflection of politics within the state, not just perceptions from the outside.
“The Republicans realized that if they didn’t do it, they were going to lose this election,” said Mr. Rahman. “It had to take a tragedy like Ahmaud Arbery before it would potentially be applied.”
But last year’s decisions need not determine this year’s. Instead, the focus of the Republican-controlled legislature this term has been a very different response to diversity — a raft of bills aimed at making it harder to vote, legislation that will fall disproportionately on minorities.
Since last week’s killings, lawmakers are discussing whether the hate crimes legislation needs to be enhanced, and whether it will be applied in this case.
In the case of Mr. Long, the use of the hate crime law could be largely symbolic in the event Mr. Long is sentenced to death, which remains a possibility in Georgia.
On the other hand, depending on any charges, the law could have concrete effects. A life sentence — enhanced by the hate crime provision — could potentially mean that he would never be granted parole, according to Mr. Efstration.
Marvin Lim, a Georgia state representative who was also among Asian-American lawmakers at the meeting with Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris, called for prosecutors to carefully consider using the hate crime statute.
Though officials in Cherokee County claimed that Mr. Long was motivated by sex addiction and not bias against Asians, Mr. Lim pointed out that gender is also protected under the hate crime law.
“Given the facts that we know, and I understand there are more investigations to be completed, I would certainly urge prosecutors to apply it to the extent legally possible,” he said.
Mr. Smyre, who is Black and the longest-serving member of the Georgia General Assembly, agreed that invoking the hate crimes law for last week’s carnage was a decision that should be left up to prosecutors, but said the legislation’s passage reflected the state’s long, slow progress on issues of racial justice.
“The political pendulum has swung to a great extent, and I think that lots of times, external pressure — that tourniquet that’s outside the Capitol — sometimes decides what we do in the public policy arena.”
ThinkCivics researches, examines, and reports on issues that matter most. We deliver explanative, fearless, and insightful analysis for public consumption.